Health and Human Development grieves death of Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson

January 15, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Richard Nelson, a retired Penn State faculty member who spent decades teaching and conducting research in the College of Health and Human Development, has died, leaving behind a rich legacy in the field of biomechanics.

A child of the Great Depression, Nelson developed in ethos of service to others, prompting him to join the armed forces, where he rose to the rank of First Lieutenant in the Air Force. He also felt fortunate to have access to higher education, which he made the most of, earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Olaf College, a master’s degree from the University of Houston, and finally a doctoral degree in exercise and sports science from Michigan State University.

Richard Nelson

Richard Nelson

IMAGE: Penn State

In 1964 Nelson joined the faculty at Penn State as an associate professor, where he would devote the next 30 years of his academic career. Only three years into his tenure, he founded the Biomechanics Laboratory, which soon garnered international prestige. The unique interdisciplinary program drew students from around the world, and in 1973 the International Society of Biomechanics was founded at Penn State to provide an institutional support for ongoing research. Nelson served as president of the society from 1975 to 1980.

Among the many technological innovations that emerged under Nelson’s leadership was a system for the National Hockey League that measured strength of shot. As an Olympics enthusiast, Nelson also developed research for a variety of winter and summer Olympic sporting events. The information gleaned from these efforts was made available to coaches and trainers through publications in international journals, such as the International Journal of Sports Biomechanics (later renamed the Journal of Applied Biomechanics), which was founded by Nelson in 1985.

“Dick Nelson's outstanding and innovative contributions to the field of biomechanics have played a significant role in the success of our department,” said Nancy Williams, head of the Department of Kinesiology and professor of kinesiology and physiology. ”He is truly a giant on whose shoulders we stand, as our faculty and many graduate trainees continue to benefit from, and carry on, the strong reputation of biomechanics at Penn State. His legacy will be honored for years to come.”

Richard Nelson unveiled the new Penn State Historical Marker celebrating biomechanics at Penn State. Nelson is one of the three people listed on the marker -- the other two are Chauncy Morehouse and Peter Cavanagh. All three were recognized for their early leadership and innovation in the lab.

IMAGE: Penn State

In 2010 family and friends of Nelson established the Richard Nelson Program Endowment in Biomechanics in the Department of Kinesiology.

Learn more about Nelson’s life and legacy by reading his obituary.

Last Updated January 15, 2021